Rabbi Monqiue Mayer
31 January 2020
Three final, devastating plagues laid waste to the land of Egypt: locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn. The eighth plague of locusts stripped the land of all remaining crops, eating up all the grasses and fruit while the tenth plague stripped the Egyptians of their children. But what of the plague of darkness? If we understand the plagues to go up in level of intensity, what could make darkness worse than locusts and exceeded in severity solely by the slaying of the first born?
- Vayeit Moshe et yado al hashamayim. Vay’hi choshekh-afeilah b’khol erets mitzrayim shloshet yamim. Lo ra’u
ish et achiv, v’lo kamu ish mitachtav shloshet yamim.
“And Moses held his hand toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was….”(Exod 10:22-23)
How is it that the ninth plague was so debilitating that people were prevented not only from seeing each other but from moving, from getting up from where they were sitting? After all, in the dark, we may not be able see what is in front of us or behind us, but we can still rely on our senses of smell, hearing, and touch to detect and navigate what is around us. We can move and interact. We can still get up.
The text itself offers insight. The latter word in the Hebrew translated as “thick darkness” — afeilah — can also be understood as “gloomy” — in other words, a gloomy darkness descended upon the land. Adding this shade of meaning tells us that the darkness was not physical but psychological. After the first eight plagues, emotionally battered by forces beyond their control, the Egyptians were plunged into deep, deep desolation, unable to lift themselves and get on with living. They didn’t hear or see anyone around them. They couldn’t reach out to hold anyone. No one was there to reach out to them. They sat in their places for three days, in suffering and isolation.
Mental illness also isolates the people experiencing it, interfering with their ability to process sensory information and function in a healthy way in daily life and in their relationships with others. Everyday tasks become difficult, initiating conversations with friends, emotionally exhausting. It is the rare individual who can navigate out of the darkness of suffering on their own. Most who are experiencing mental health issues need assistance from others. And although few of us are professionally trained to handle deep-seated issues, we all can do one simple thing to support people whom we see and know are in distress: listen.
Listening is the most powerful tool we have to create a bridge between darkness and light. In the Jewish ethical tradition of Mussar, Shmiat HaOzen — attentive listening — is an important character trait. Shmiat HaOzen requires ignoring distractions and focus exclusively on the other person. Shmiat HaOzen teaches us to listen out for what is not being said and to ask ourselves, “What is the other person’s hope or fear behind what they are saying? Is there more to this situation than what this person is expressing?”
By practicing Shmiat HaOzen, we support those who are suffering by showing them how much we value them. We don’t try to fix them or solve their problems. We don’t give unsolicited advice (and even then, we practice restraint). And, we don’t push them to do something they’re not ready to do. We listen with empathy, sitting with this wounded soul in their despair to be fully present with them. By practicing Shmiat HaOzen, being with someone in their pain, we can make it safe for the person to explore options and support them in making good choices to move themselves in a positive, healing direction.
On this Mental Health Awareness Shabbat and onward, let us become good practitioners of Shmiat HaOzen, reaching out to those who are suffering, being with them in their pain, and supporting them as they journey from darkness to light.
[This sermon was originally published in Jami’s 2020 Mental Health Awareness Shabbat resource pack]
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